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Why a well-crafted melody has the power to colonise your mind
How does music influence behavior?
I am waltzing though the aisles of my local supermarket looking for a rice dish I can wolf down for a quick supper before heading out again across town. I finally locate the right aisle, slide to the dizzying array of rice choices, stick out my arm to snatch a random box when – bamm! That damn ‘Rice-A-Roni – The San Francisco Treat’ jingle from the 1960s involuntarily invades my consciousness, just as my mom sang it to me in my youth… I surrender to the jingle, throw the box into the cart (supremely annoyed with myself for doing so) and then head toward the beverage section.
All of a sudden I notice I am moving in rhythm with the musak floating above in the supermarket’s sound system. Growing more annoyed with the obvious fact that this musak is shaping my movements, I notice I have somehow arrived at a stack of soda cartons with the soul-crushing ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’ and ‘Wanta Fanta? Don’t You Wanta’ jingles simultaneously coursing through my mind. Now thoroughly demoralised, I robotically place the Coke in my cart and proceed, vanquished, to the checkout where the din between my ears will hopefully cease, or at least fade away.
Later, sitting in my lab in the neurology department of the Boston Veterans Administration, I ask myself when and where I became so easy to manipulate. I flatter myself that, while there are these occasional lapses in my ability to screen out garbage, I am usually immune to the repetitive sap that assaults my ears daily through supermarket soundstreams, radio, TV and internet adverts.
I click on my computer to listen to some music while I work. I flatter myself again that I am listening to my music – not just any radio station. I call up my Pandora station to play my list when I notice once again that a strategically placed ad wafts across the stream and grabs my attention, diabolically and seamlessly interleaved with songs I love.
Pandora apparently does know me, as their advertising wing loves to boast. With each thumbs up or down, its Music Genome Project gets smarter and continues to tailor song selections to my individual tastes. Apple uses Genius to do the same.
Advertising jingles work because music is powerful. Note that those advertising jingles that assaulted me in the supermarket were decades old and yet still had the power to shape my thoughts and behaviour. There is no escaping commercial uses of music to shape our behaviours, it seems. Advertisers understand that music is an extraordinarily effective means to implant messages in consumers’ minds that can and do reverberate and even shape behaviour for decades.
Although we can regularly screen out the thoughts, sounds, images, memories, opinions and ideas of others as foreign and potentially noxious, it ain’t the same with music. If one of those ‘foreign’ messages gets packaged into a catchy melody or a well-crafted song, we not only let the message in and take it to heart, we might end up constantly repeating it and go searching for more of the same! The well-crafted melody or song is an extremely powerful way to colonise or influence other minds. While most of us can resist this mind control when it comes in the form of speeches, tracts, newspapers and blogs, we have much less power when that message comes as a song or a jingle. Music, like religion, may be a prime example of one of Dawkins’ postulated ‘memes’ – those informational replicators that use our minds to propagate themselves regardless of the fitness consequences for us.
Why is music so powerful? Why does it get privileged access to our hearts and minds? One factor is memory. Musical melodies, especially jingles, worm their way in because they are easy to remember. Songs and melodies appear to be especially memorable because they are encoded primarily in the emotional areas of the brain, such as the limbic system and the orbitofrontal cortex.
In addition, when we hear music (especially music we like) the reward centres of the brain, the same centres that give us pleasure when eating good food or having good sex, get intensively activated. Called the ‘mesolimbic striatal dopaminergic system’, the reward centre does far more than toggle on at a concert with beloved tunes. It also strengthens the connectivity between the reward system and the higher thinking areas of the brain in the prefrontal and temporal regions. In plain English, music activates both the primary pleasure centres as well as the higher thinking centres of the brain so that we are immersed in a highly pleasurable reverie or an intensely rewarding reflective state while the music washes over us.
Because music has such an uncanny ability to activate pleasure centres and link them with higher cognitive-imaginative functions, musical melodies are highly memorable and are easily brought back into consciousness whenever the moment is right. But why did evolution mould the system this way?
Perhaps because music’s direct access to the emotional brain gives it the capacity to transparently express mood and emotion, just as language transparently expresses thought. The neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel has noted that music exhibits some similarities to language: they both have a kind of syntax or set of rules that guides construction of basic elements, such as words and sentences in the case of language, or notes, chords and key signatures in the case of music. Combinations of basic elements according to rules generate the hierarchical cognitive and sound structures that we call sentences or melodies. Patel suggests that music and language share a basic brain resource that allows them to generate these complex sentences and songs.
The main candidate for such a powerful shared resource is Broca’s area of the brain, which appears to be a kind of syntax centre – it takes incoming information, arranges it into chunks, and then combines the chunks into a sequential order.
Neuroimaging studies demonstrate that Broca’s area is activated when people listen to music or the speech of other people. Music and language appear to be sharing this area of the brain to produce structure in sentences and songs.
The difference is that language specialises in expression of thought, and music specialises in expression of emotion. Evolutionary theorists have pointed out that when language evolved, it not only improved communication between people, it also made communication unstable because it allowed them to obfuscate and lie. People needed to find a more trustworthy means of communicating – a mode that could not lie or be faked.
The solution to the problem of the lie made possible by language was music. And its key characteristics support this evolutionary take, which explains music’s power in one fell swoop. We let music into our hearts and minds because we are designed to trust it as a message that cannot be faked. Song has always been the preferred means to transmit the tribe’s myths and stories, its cultural gold, to those entering life’s liminal crises such as puberty and then later the infinite variety of destinies carved out in adult life. Therefore, both for the child and the adult, song potentially contains priceless information that can spell the difference between reproductive immortality and evolutionary death.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.
- A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
- Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
- Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
A pile of recycled cardboard sits on the ground at Recology's Recycle Central on January 4, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images<p>A large part of the reason is speed. In a competitive market, pure players use the equation, <em>speed + convenience</em>, to drive adoption. This is especially relevant to the "last mile" GHG footprint: the distance between the distribution center and the consumer.</p><p>Interestingly, the smallest GHG footprint occurs when you order directly from a physical store—even smaller than going there yourself. Pure players, such as Amazon, are the greatest offenders. Variables like geographic location matter; the team looked at shopping in the UK, the US, China, and the Netherlands. </p><p>Sadegh Shahmohammadi, a PhD student at the Netherlands' Radboud University and corresponding author of the paper, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/26/tech/greenhouse-gas-emissions-retail/index.html" target="_blank">says</a> the above "pattern holds true in countries where people mostly drive. It really depends on the country and consumer behavior there."</p><p>The researchers write that this year-and-a-half long study pushes back on previous research that claims online shopping to be better in terms of GHG footprints.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They have, however, compared the GHG emissions per shopping event and did not consider the link between the retail channels and the basket size, which leads to a different conclusion than that of the current study."</p><p>Online retail is where convenience trumps environment: people tend to order one item at a time when shopping on pure player sites, whereas they stock up on multiple items when visiting a store. Consumers will sometimes order a number of separate items over the course of a week rather than making one trip to purchase everything they need. </p><p>While greening efforts by online retailers are important, until a shift in consumer attitude changes, the current carbon footprint will be a hard obstacle to overcome. Amazon is trying to have it both ways—carbon-free and convenience addicted—and the math isn't adding up. If you need to order things, do it online, but try to consolidate your purchases as much as possible.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
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